Eric Tillman’s firing shows how far Edmonton Eskimos have fallen since 1970s-'80s heyday
Once-perennial CFL powerhouse hasn’t had quarterbacking this bad in 40-plus years
VANCOUVER — Now and then, a sports franchise turns itself around by completely abandoning the past, washing its hands of a history gone sour, and installing a whole new regime.
But most successful outfits remain so because they retain some keepers of the flame — people who remember how it was done by teams that won. The more the better.
When the Edmonton Eskimos abruptly fired Eric Tillman as general manager Saturday at the end of a chaotic regular season, it merely underlined how far they’ve fallen from an epoch that lasted more than three decades, when they seemed to have a recipe for enduring achievement that no other Canadian Football League club possessed.
Never mind the can of worms his firing now opens: the persistent rumour that Tillman eventually will end up as GM in Toronto, the very team to which he (dare we say scandalously) handed quarterback Ricky Ray last winter in a move interpreted here as a CFL under-the-table deal designed to make the Argos stronger for the 100th Grey Cup season.
Tillman was outraged by the suggestion that either it was a conspiracy or he had lost his marbles, and so were the Argos, who complained that they ought be given credit for making a shrewd swap without it being written off to insider trading.
And never mind that the Eskimos end up backing into the playoffs having lost eight of their last 10 regular-season games, only to face Ray and the Argonauts in the crossover playoff game this coming weekend. And that Toronto is the only team that hasn’t beaten them this year.
No one in Edmonton is fooled. The Eskimos were pretty darned lousy, and Tillman, still regarded as an outsider, was an obvious sacrifice.
A winner, undeniably, in previous incarnations in B.C., Toronto, and Saskatchewan, Tillman was always, from the moment of his hiring in 2010, high-risk in terms of his damaged image and too-public profile — brought in, some argued, because the Eskimos’ top brass no longer had any original ideas.
He was hired in desperation by a community-owned club, despite his tawdry departure from Regina after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting a 16-year-old babysitter, because the organization had long since lost the road map to places where they once found Hugh Campbell and Don Matthews and super-scouts Ray Newman and Frankie Morris and so many others who built their legacy of excellence.
Campbell retired, the last link to the 1978-82 dynasty teams — sorry, equipment manager Dwayne Mandrusiak is still there but not making any personnel decisions (maybe they’d be better off if he were) — and Jackie Parker died within the same month at the end of the 2006 season, and with those two icons went the remaining drops of mystique that had clung to the club for a generation or more.
Many of Campbell’s old assistants had long ago left for head coaching jobs elsewhere — the late Cal Murphy and Joe Faragalli, and notably Matthews, who went on to be the winningest head coach in CFL history until Wally Buono passed him — and then Ron Lancaster, who won a Grey Cup as Esks’ head coach in 1993, departed for Hamilton. And now he’s dead, too.
This is all ancient history, of course, and many a CFL franchise has reinvented itself, not always successfully, several times over in the same time frame.
Matthews, for example, was a gun-for-hire who seemed able to bring his winning formula with him — from Edmonton to B.C. to Toronto to Baltimore to Montreal — in his suitcase.
Similarly, Buono’s nearly unparalleled football savvy transferred seamlessly from Calgary to B.C. when Bob Ackles brought him to Vancouver nine years ago. Wisdom doesn’t always have to be homegrown.
It might have worked that way for Tillman, too. That, clearly, was what the Eskimos hoped would happen. But his ego and personality rubbed many in the Edmonton organization the wrong way — four front-office people have left the club this year alone — and his absenteeism (his family still lived in Regina, and he was making frequent trips back to see his father in Mississippi) started to be an issue. Especially once it became apparent that the unpopular trade of Ray last winter had left Edmonton without a starting quarterback in a league that’s all about throwing the ball.
The Eskimos hadn’t had quarterbacking this bad, probably, since the horrible 1960s, and the folklore is so well known in Edmonton, you don’t even have to have been a fan then to know the names of all the Jon Anabos, Corey Colehours and Charlie Fultons, Don Trulls and Rusty Clarkes, the Randy Kerbows and Terry Bakers and on and on and on who stood behind centre and struggled to hit the broad side of a barn with the football while head coaches Neill Armstrong and Ray Jauch died a little every game.
It’s been so long since Tom Wilkinson and Bruce Lemmerman arrived in the early 1970s to start the painfully slow turning of the battleship — the torch was passed from them to Warren Moon, Matt Dunigan, Damon Allen, Tracy Ham, back to Allen, to David Archer and Danny McManus and Jason Maas and Ricky Ray — fans there have written off the occasional Kerwin Bell or Nealon Greene period as mere blips on the radar screen.
Or they had, until this season’s mishmash of recycled Steven Jyles, re-recycled Kerry Joseph and newbie Matt Nichols established new lows on the aesthetic scale.
The franchise still has Ed Hervey, who’s now the head scout after winning two Grey Cups as a star receiver, and director of player personnel Paul Jones, who had a hand in the team’s 2003 and 2005 Cups. And they have Kavis Reed, the head coach (and presumptive next GM) who feels the Eskimos’ tradition keenly, even though his career as a defensive back there from 1995-99 included no championships.
But do they have enough organizational DNA to remember how to climb the mountain and stay there, or thereabouts? Or are they destined to be like almost everyone else, excepting B.C. (with Buono) and Montreal (with Jim Popp) and perhaps eventually Calgary (with John Hufnagel): conducting a semi-annual search for a different message, different ideas, or merely changing for the sake of change to keep the masses from revolting?
We’ll soon find out, because they’re about ready to revolt in Edmonton.
If Ricky Ray beats the Eskimos on Remembrance Day, the man both sides may have cause to remember is E.T. the Edmonton Trader. In Alberta, they’d spell that last word differently.
On Twitter: Twitter.com/rcamcole
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